One classical example for nudging is a small soccer goal in a urinal. This little measure alone leads men to aim better and reduces the amount of urine on the floor of public men’s room by 80%. This sounds like a fun example but nudges can be used in all kinds of settings.
Nudging is a term from behavioural economics. It is a method to influence people’s behaviour in a predictable manner, without the use of imperatives or prohibitions or the change of economic incentives.
The so-called “libertarian paternalism” and the according choice architecture nudges people gently into a direction which is, from the viewpoint of the actor, good for them. The crucial point is that this happens without the restriction of peoples’ freedom.
A critical examination of this new policy instrument seems to be indicated since it suggests a “superior knowledge” of the actors.
Who is allowed to use this instrument to influence others? Who determines the “wise” decision? What considerations define a “smart” decision? How to ensure that nudges are used openly and transparently to prevent manipulation and paternalism? What should be the overall goal of nudging interventions (for example, social welfare, and personal autonomy)? What to do when the overall goals are mutually exclusive?
What is ‘Nudging’ all about?
Nudging is an instrumental method aiming to influence people’s behaviour without changing their choice set. A lot of (policy) interventions are targeting the behaviour of individuals in one way or another. For example taxes or subsidies set incentives or disincentives to act in a certain way, while laws, bans and mandates dictate a given mode of behaviour and therefore have a coercive nature. Nudges, on the other hand, steer people in a certain direction, without limiting their freedom of choice. So it is a liberty-preserving approach to affect the decisions of individuals in a positive way, as Sunstein (2014) puts it, with the possibility to decide otherwise. So, for a (policy) intervention to classify as a nudge, it must alter ‘people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid.’ (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008).
One important aspect of nudges is that they are designed to make people’s lives easier, simpler and safer. Empirical studies have shown that people, in a lot of situations, make decisions with bounded rationality. So often times, when confronted with complex situations, people tend to employ established paradigms, rules of thumb, simple heuristics and feelings to reach a decision, rather than taking all information and facts into account. When understanding those mechanism people use to reach a decision, one can use easy instruments, namely nudges, to reach socially desirable objectives (Vodafone Stiftung, 2014). They can take a lot of different forms like default settings (for example, opting-in or opting-out), increasing convenience (for example, making the healthy food options easier accessible at the cafeteria), sending out reminders (for example, for overdue bills), editing of information given to individuals, and many more.
So implementing nudges is a powerful tool, however, especially when the government starts to nudge, there is some scepticism out there. Nudges can easily be understood as manipulative and patronizing. So the use of nudges should be cautious and transparent (Bruttle & Stolly, 2014)
Where to Nudge People?
As mentioned above, nudges can span a wide range; they can come in a great variety and are applicable at a lot of different scenarios. We, the YES!-Team of Gymnasium Wellingdorf, want to help cyclists to ride safer. Nudges can direct their behaviour into a more sound and reasonable direction, when it comes to traffic behaviour.
This topic was especially relevant for us due to personal experiences and the fact, that riding a bike is very present in our lives. One of Ali Anaissi’s cousins got hit by a truck a couple of years ago in Kiel, while riding his bike, and died. The accident happened on his daily way to school while crossing a street.
The bike is a very important mean of transportation in Kiel. According to the road safety report of state capital Kiel 2015 (Verkehrssicherheitsbericht, 2015), roughly 17% of intra local trips are conducted by bike, compared to 9% in the nationwide average. In 2015 more than 450 cyclists were involved in accidents; almost half of those accidents were mainly or partly caused by cyclists. Not adjusting speed was the most common cause for accidents mainly caused by cyclists. But also disregarding red lights and disregarding right of way were accident sources, which are rather induced by inattentiveness.
The statistics show that getting involved in an accident while riding a bike is not just a subjective feeling caused by personal experience, but a severe problem. So we decided to use nudges to direct cyclist into the ‘right’ direction.
How to Nudge?
To reduce the number of accidents, we were thinking about dangerous spots where cyclists could be nudged to reduce velocity or pay more attention. One useful nudge to get people’s attention are graphical warnings in bright colours (Sunstein, 2014).
First of all we thought about lines on the streets. Those could be used at hard bends or corners to get the cyclists attention and make him or her aware of upcoming obstacles, like a sharp turn. To show the direction of curves that are difficult to see, the markings on the street could be angled in the same way and point the cyclist in the direction. In addition, differently coloured lines can indicate the level of difficulty, i.e., green for a low level of difficulty, orange for a medium level of difficulty and red indicates the highest level of difficulty, warning the cyclist in advance. For better visibility at night time, reflectors should be added to the markings.
As mentioned above, the markings are specially designed for bends and corners, however, there are a lot of different situations where it is necessary to get the cyclists attention and/ or slow him or her down. Examples are streets going downhill or having a difficult to assess the overall traffic situation, i.e., hard to see that the cyclist has to yield right of way, etc.
To get people to slow down, we think about a game the cyclist can play while riding his or her bike. 3D-stickers can be placed on bike paths to nudge cyclists to slow down by encouraging them to play a game. We are thinking of two different types of 3D-stickers.
One version of stickers is a 3D star coin, inspired by jump and run computer games, where the player has to collect as many coins as possible. The location and number of coins used to depend on the slope/ traffic situation on the bike path. The coins are being distributed unevenly on the path, such that the cyclist must make an effort to “collect” them by riding over them. In consequence, he or she has to slow down to get all the coins.
The other version of stickers is a 3D pylon. Pylons are known by a lot of people from road safety education, physical education, sports, etc. The 3D pylons will be placed on the bath bike in a way that the cyclists can ride a slalom course. Here again, they can play a game, have fun and slow down at the same time, since they won’t go in a straight line.
Another way to nudge people to pay more attention to traffic, and especially get them to slow down or stop at dangerous crossings, is to show them constantly changing jokes and fun facts. An easy way to do so is to put up electronic displays which show a “phrase of the day”, which is written in a font size that can only be picked up when slowing down or stopping altogether. The constantly changing phrases keep the interest of the cyclist going this way on a regular basis up and are therefore a good instrument to get them stopped to read it for an extended period of time.
To sum it up
Nudges are a powerful tool to steer people in a particular direction without taking away their freedom of choice.
We want to use nudges to bring more safety on the streets for cyclists. As the road safety report 2015 shows, accidents with cyclists are a serious problem in Kiel, but probably also in a lot of other cities. A lot of the reported accidents involving cyclists are induced by too high velocity.
Through markings on the streets, 3D stickers on bike paths and electronic displays at dangerous crossings, we want to nudge cyclists to pay more attention, slow down and ride in a more attentive way. At the same time, we want to keep up the fun and find a more appealing way to change cyclists’ behaviour than mandates and laws.
List of References
Bruttle, Lisa V., Florian Stolly (2014): Ist es im Interesse der Bürger, wenn ihre Regierung Nudges implementiert? Wirtschaftsdienst 2014/11, p. 776-791
Schubert, Christian (2015):“On the ethics of public nudging: Autonomy and agency”, Joint Discussion Paper Series in Economics; 33-2015
Sunstein, Cass R. (2014): Nudging: A Very Short Guide. Discussion Paper No. 799, 11/2014 Harvard Law School
Thaler, R.H. and C.R. Sunstein (2008): Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Verkehrssicherheitsbericht Landeshauptstadt Kiel (2015). Polizeidirektion Kiel (Hrsg.)
Vodafone Stiftung Deutschland (2014): Wirksamer Regieren. Policy Paper, Vodafone Stiftung Deutschland GmbH (Hrsg.)